Learning from The Inner Game of Tennis


In Troduction

The Inner Game of Tennis is subtitled as ‘the classic guide to the mental side of peak performance.” It has been in publication for more than 30 years and has been followed by a number of highly successful professionals in the tennis, football, music, and corporate worlds. I decided to read this book for two reasons: 1) A good friend gave me the book and spoke of it highly, and 2) Improving mental performance would seem to be beneficial in any activity, whether it’s tennis, work presentations or stand-up comedy.

Selfish Thinking

The entire book is based on the premise that there are two “selves.” Gallwey names them Self 1 and Self 2, where Self 1 is the ego-mind or “teller” (“Hit the ball like this”) and Self 2 is natural ability or the “doer” (the actual movement of the muscles to hit the ball). In order to achieve peak performance, one must “quiet the mind” (Self 1) and let Self 2 do what it knows how to do.

At a high-level, this makes sense–stop thinking so much and just do it. In improv, you’re forced into situations where you don’t have time to think,  you just have to open your mouth and hope a logical sentence comes out. Think back to the last interview you saw of someone doing something incredible such as saving a child from a fire or helping a drowning man. Some reporter inevitably asks them “what was going through your mind?” and the typical “boring” response is “I don’t remember. I just reacted.”

Sure, stop thinking, just do it, sounds easy enough right? Go ahead and try it now. Stop thinking”¦. I said stop. You can’t do it. The brain naturally thinks of something (such as the Stay-Puft Marshmallows).  So Mr. Gallwey, how are we supposed to quiet Self 1 if it’s impossible to stop thinking?

“The best way to quiet the mind is not by telling it to shut up, or by arguing with it, or criticizing it for criticizing you. What works best is learning to focus it.”(pg 82) Ah, so “to still the mind, one must learn to put it somewhere.” (pg 83) But what does it mean to focus the mind? Focus means picking up only “those aspects of a situation that are needed to accomplish the task at hand.” (pg 84) So if you’re hitting a tennis ball, all you really need to focus on is the ball. That’s it.


Getting out of the way of Self 2 makes a lot of sense–if Self 2 knows the right thing to do. When you present in front of a client, you don’t consciously tell yourself to look down while talking, or to say “uh” to fill pauses. You just do it. Neither are particularly beneficial to your presentation, but how can they be corrected if Self 1 has to stay out of it? How do you fix a bad habit if you can’t tell yourself what to do?

“There is no need to fight old habits. Start new ones.” (pg 74) In order to “fix” a bad habit, you don’t actually have to fix the habit. Instead just start working on a good one. The bad habit doesn’t necessarily disappear, you just stop doing it. Gallwey edifies this point with the analogy of babies: just because they learn to walk doesn’t mean they forget how to crawl.

Theoretically this makes sense. Hey stop doing A and start doing B. Magically, A disappears, hooray. But we return to the above problem: how do you start doing B if you can’t tell Self 2 what it means to do B (doo bee doo)?

A Thousand Words

The trick is that you can communicate with Self 2, just not in the traditional sense of “Hey head. Yeah, you up at the top. Don’t look down while presenting to clients.” But in the sense of imagery, or rather sensory images. Gallwey refers to this as heightening awareness. Become “aware” of important aspects of whatever you are working to improve, get an accurate image of the correct action, imagine you doing that action, and then let Self 2 do the action.

Suppose you could use some improvement in your typing ability. You always seem to struggle to find the ‘.’ key quickly and it slows down your typing when writing multiple sentences. You know from your study of the “home row” that the ‘.’ key rests on the lower right of the keyboard, next to the ‘,’ and ‘/’, and that you’re supposed to hit the key with your ring finger on your right hand. How would you fix this?

Gallwey’s four step process is defined as:

  1. Nonjudgmental observation
  2. Picture the desired outcome
  3. Trust Self 2
  4. Nonjudgmental observation of change and results.

It’s important to note his use of the word “nonjudgmental.” When observing your own behavior (becoming aware of what is happening), you must do it without judging your behavior as positive or negative, right or wrong, good or bad. This type of analysis of the situation is Self 1 talking, so let it go. Instead you just observe the behavior as it is, indifferent to whether it’s “good” or “bad.”

So you nonjudgmentally observe yourself typing a few sentences. You notice that whenever you need to hit the ”˜.’ key, you move your hand down and hit it with your middle finger. After hitting the key, you find that you have to move your entire hand back to the home row to get ready for the next sentence. Now that you’ve observed this action, you picture the correct behavior, that is, you picture your ring finger hitting the ”˜.’ key. In fact you may even hit the ”˜.’ key a few times, each time bringing the ring finger down to hit it and returning it back to its starting position, just noticing how it feels to bring the finger down, and letting Self 2 feel what it’s like. With all the information it needs, Self 2 is ready to go. You start typing again, observing what your fingers are doing. You don’t make a conscious effort to hit the ”˜.’ with your ring finger, you just observe which finger is doing it. If the Gallwey’s Inner Game theory works, you’ll observe that you were hitting it with your ring finger.

(Note: I purposefully gave this as an example because it’s something that I need to work on.  While typing the above paragraphs, I observed where my fingers were, but refrained from thinking “hit it with your ring finger.”  Based on the above results, it does seem that I am more consistently hitting it with the right finger and speeding up my typing.)

The Inner Game of ?

The concept of mastering Inner Game is certainly an interesting one, and it seems pretty obvious that it can be applied to other areas of your life. However, what are its limitations? Does it only make sense in sports? Sure it can help the golf swing, but what about the business world?

To me it seems that Gallwey’s theory works best for actions that are physical, those using muscle memory (such as a tennis swing or looking down during a presentation).   But how would it apply to the cessation of smoking cigarettes, saying “uh,” or asking for a raise? How does Self 2 learn/imagine a desired outcome of not standing there with a cigarette in your mouth, the lack of a verbal tick, or asking for more money?

For the more cerebral, verbal, theoretical circumstances, Self 2 doesn’t get much of a say.  If Self 2 is out of the picture, then that means Self 1 is the only one available.  And while a lot of Gallwey’s tips are dependent on Self 2’s presence, I think the underlying concept of increasing awareness, focus and observation can help with the less physical actions.  Being aware of the smoke filling my lungs might lead to a more pressing desire to quit (I can’t say as I never started).  Focusing on the words I’m saying could help me limit the number of “uhs” that creep out.  Observing my managers body language, as well as my own, might help me be more confident and self-assured when asking to get paid what I deserve.

In Conclusion

At 134 pages, the The Inner Game of Tennis is a quick read.  The concepts within are thought-provoking and applicable to a number of areas (plus I have a head start if I ever want to pick up the game of tennis).  If you found any of the above thoughts interesting, I highly recommend you pick up your own copy.  I barely scratched the surface of its big picture concept, and Gallwey does a great job of providing details and examples to further your comprehension of his ideas.  Of all the words in the book, I think my favorite might have been the following, found on page 127:

“Maybe wisdom is not so much to come up with new answers as to recognize at a deeper level the profundity of the age-old answers.”- W. Timothy Gallwey

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